Tuesday, October 31, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #13: The Witches

I’d like to have been at the first performance of the Ninth Symphony, where a member of the orchestra had to turn the by-then stone deaf Beethoven round so that he could see the audience rapturously applauding. I’d like to have been at Knebworth in 1979 when Led Zeppelin basically demolished the entire punk movement in one epic show and the crowd adulated. And I’d like to have been in the production meeting at Jim Henson’s offices when someone floated the idea that the absolute best person to direct a kid’s film based on a Roald Dahl novel was the dude who made ‘Performance’, ‘Walkabout’, ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ and ‘Eureka’.

It goes without saying that Nicolas Roeg was the absolute best person to helm a Roald Dahl adaptation – no other filmmaker has tapped into the grotesquery of Dahl’s work with such gleefully scatological intuition – but nonetheless I can only imagine it was akin to a studio meeting today wherein an E.L. Stine property is being discussed and a lone voice of insanity lobbies really hard for Darren Aronofsky. The day after ‘mother!’ opened.

Many Dahl adaptations fail because they shy away from how fundamentally fucked up his stories are, or – pace Tim Burton’s stab at ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ – work too hard at trying to replicate the weirdness. Then we have the likes of Spielberg’s ‘The BFG’, which I walked out of after 40 minutes because (a) he just didn’t freakin’ get it, and (b) nobody involved had any Christing idea which decade they were setting it in. It was like watching an episode of ‘Electric Dreams’ where the main character gradually comes to realise he’s in an immediately recognisable but ultimately improbable simulation of England.

‘The Witches’ opens in Norway, its title sequence pulsating to Stanley Myers’ magnificently OTT score as Roeg’s camera whizzes over a snowy mountainscape. It’s like a mash-up of the opening credits scenes of ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and ‘The Shining’ and it signals from the get-go that this isn’t going to be a typical kids’ movie. The first act has young Luke Evisham (Jaden Fisher) learning about witches from his eccentric grandmother Helga (Mia Zetterling, having the time of her life) while on a vacation to the old homeland with his parents. Fate intercedes and when they buy it in an offscreen car accident (this is a Roald Dahl story, and he never condescended to his readers about the essential unfairness of life), Helga relocates to England to look after him. A health scare sees Helga diagnosed with diabetes (yup, Roald D again: guy ain’t spoon-feeding ya) and advised to take a restorative break at a seaside hotel.

If Roeg’s vision of Norway is generally respectful (albeit a tad “chocolate box”), his take on England is pure satire, from the bicycle as the preferred means of transport to shiny red postboxes in picturesque village lanes by way of cheeky young lads who could have stepped living and breathing from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse and insufferably pompous hoteliers whose establishments boast drab rooms and sticky buns. Speaking of the hospitality trade, Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Stringer – his last great performance before he inexplicably embraced the moronism of ‘Mr Bean’, ‘Johnny English’ and all the other identikit rubber-faced pratfall roles he’s favoured for the last two decades – deliberately evokes one Basil Fawlty.

Into this parochial little England comes the Grand High Witch (a never-better Anjelica Huston). Under the guise of a fund-raiser for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the GHW chairs a council of witches with the sole item on the agenda being how they can most effectively do the maximum amount of harm to children. Hint: it involves turning them into mice.

What follows – as Helga recognises the GHW as an antagonist of old, and Luke suffers the side-effects of a run-in with the witches – is as close as you’re likely to get to a live action treatise on the aesthetics and logistics of a cartoon on either side of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, and even ‘WFRR’ had to rely on a certain amount of traditional animation.

At its most manic and delirious, ‘The Witches’ is like a Tex Avery cartoon come to life with all of the not-for-the-kiddies sensibilities that description suggests. Its most astounding set piece is the aforementioned witches’ council, a sequence so extended that it virtually occupies the entire middle third of the film. In it, Huston’s GHW becomes so transported in her description of how the childrens’ fates will be effected that her vocal delivery and body language become almost sexual. This, twinned with the grotesque facial appearance of her true self (none of the witches can wait to shuck off their human disguises once they’re behind closed doors), makes for decidedly uncomfortable viewing.

Or take the scene where head chef Andre (Jim Carter) encounters an anthropomorphized mouse which tries to elude his anti-rodent attentions by running up his trousers. The ensuing comedy of embarrassments is more Brian Rix farce than kids’ film. Or how about the diversion the GHW creates at one point by sending a pram hurtling towards a cliff edge? In the office last week, during a conversation about favourite Halloween films, I intoned (in appropriate sing-song fashion) the line “real witches work only with magic” – several grown adults shuddered and told me not to.

Yes, Roeg was exactly the right person to direct ‘The Witches’. It’s a weirdly unconventional piece of filmmaking, in ways that it would take me an essay four or five times the length of this one to fully explicate; it’s not interested in traditional narrative functionality or even the requirement of having a hero; and it’s utterly committed to the macabre and the grotesque. It’s the ideal thirteenth in this year’s thirteen for Halloween.

Monday, October 30, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #12: The Naked Witch

The most useful facility the wannabe connoisseur of trash movies can develop is pragmatism. Trash movies are made quickly, on the cheap, with the sole object of turning a fast buck on very little investment. Low-rent advertising is the only kind available to the purveyors of such stuff, and often the most effective advert for the product is its very title. One learns to take lurid titles at face value, and steels oneself for disappointment.

So it was that I settled down to watch the film under consideration today, and as I hit play I intoned a small prayer: “Lord grant me the serenity to know that a movie called ‘The Naked Witch’, made in 1961 with a fifty-nine minute and seven second run time, can’t possibly deliver on the dual promise of its title and will in fact probably be hard pressed to tick even one of those boxes. Amen.”

Serenity was granted and I watched ‘The Naked Witch’ and drank a bottle of Adnams Broadside and sat down to write and objective considered review, and never once did I feel compelled to hurl something across the room, or beat my fists against the screen while choking out the sob-drenched words, “You cheap lousy bastards, you called it ‘The Naked Witch’ and I didn’t feel a single tingle in the place where it’s nice to feel a tingle, and I want those fifty-nine minutes and seven seconds back, God damn you! God damn you all.”

And thus co-writer/directors Larry Buchanan and Claude Alexander escaped damnation and my blood pressure remained at a safe level. Now here we are, 270 words in, and you probably have a couple of questions. Taking an educated guess, the first is: When the hell you going to quit procrastinating and actually turn in a review? The second: Why do you keep harping on about the running time?

Well, I’ll tell ya. The running time of ‘The Naked Witch’ is fifty-three seconds shy of an hour. That’s pretty short for a feature. You’d expect an almost breathlessly pacy narrative, wouldn’t you? A narrative that puts its head down and runs hellbent for leather in the general direction of the end credits, tossing out – even allowing for our dialled-down expectations – at least a few nudity- and witchery-driven set pieces along the way.

No. Fucking. Chance.

‘The Naked Witch’ opens with an eight and a half minute prologue where a narrator with all the vocal nuance and intellectual charisma of a half-inflated whoopee cushion being suddenly sat on gives what I would normally describe as a lecture on the history of witchcraft. Except that lecture suggests the imparting of information; the marshalling of verifiable facts into a coherent overview; the education of the listener. Instead, what our droning voiceover artist does – as the camera roams interminably over a Brueghel canvas – is blether a load of purple prose to the effect that witches are scary and do weird supernatural shit. For eight and a half bastard minutes.

Then we get the opening credits, which include a quote from Shakespeare. Voiceover dude intones the quote in the same lifeless fashion. He also manages to misquote it. We’re over ten minutes into the film at this point. More than one-sixth of its running time has been expended and literally fucking nothing has happened.

Surely, with somewhere in the region of forty-eight minutes left to play with, Buchanan and Alexander are really going to pull out the stops and throw this motherfucker into overdrive.


We open on a sports car navigating the picturesque roads of Luckenback, Texas. Its driver is bland all-American nobody of the lumberyard school of acting. The credits have identified him as The Student. But since I don’t want to type The Student every time I refer to this pencilneck, I’ll call him Brock. He looks like a Brock. Plus it rhymes with cock.

Brock is on his way to a small town which is still a demographic stronghold of the German settlers who came to Texas in eighteen-something-or-other (the voiceover kicks in again almost the second the credits are done with), and whose history Brock is researching for … something. Term paper, assignment, whatever the 1961 equivalent of a blog was. I don’t know. Something. I’d picked up my phone and played a couple of moves on Words With Friends at this point.

Anyway, to cut a long anti-narrative short, Brock fetches up in town, listens to the children’s choir sing the kind of song that was probably really popular in the Hitler Youth, finds lodgings, flirts with flaxen-haired mädchen Kirska (Jo Maryman) – one of the few characters the script can be bothered to gift with a name – but does nothing about it when she flounces into his bedroom in a diaphanous nightgown and asks if he wants to borrow her book on witchcraft. He says thanks, opens the door for her, and sits down to read the book. Smooth work, Brock, smooth fuckin’ work.

From the book, Brock learns that a woman wronged by one of Kirska’s ancestors was deemed a witch and executed as a means of silencing her accusations against said blackguard. Brock goes looking for the witch’s grave – which has a lot of loose topsoil for something dug in the 1600s – and inadvertently awakens her.

We are now thirty-four minutes into the film. The title character – yup, she’s billed as The Naked Witch (Libby Hall) – has only just shown up, and we’re left with twenty-five minutes and a few seconds to document her unholy vengeance, bring her into conflict with Brock, steer Kirska into a woman-in-peril scenario, and deliver a tense, exciting denouement. Oh, and throw in some nudity, too.

Granted, The Naked Witch (let’s call her Helga) gets straight to business by offing two of the townsfolk then going skinny-dipping. Meanwhile, Brock, realising what he’s done but not wanting to admit it to his hosts, does some research into the witch, first by visiting the library then by heading to some caves on the outskirts of town where the very comely librarian is convinced a purely theoretical witch, having been awakened from her deathless sleep, would logically go to ground. Heading towards the caves, Brock notices Helga skinny-dipping and having presumably rediscovered his libido stands and watches her for what feels like the combined running time of ‘Satantango’ and ‘Out 1’. She catches him watching, leads him to a cave, they make out a bit, she does a weird dance which is not only non-seductive but curiously emphasises how big her hands are, then they make out again. Brock falls asleep post-canoodling. We’re now four minutes from the end of the movie.

Four minutes for Helga to fixate on Kirska as the last victim in her campaign of retribution, Kirska to be lured into a perilous situation, and Brock to save the day. Hands up everyone who thinks the ending’s going to suck like a Dyson that’s just been given a flux capacitor upgrade?

That’ll be all of you, then.

Oh yeah, and that first question you had for me: what about the review? That was just it. Right there. Proof positive that the sleazier the title, the greater the need to manage one’s expectations. Now, does anyone have a copy of ‘Virgin Witch’ that I can borrow…?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #11: The Pendle Witch Child

An hour-long BBC4 documentary presented by the poet Simon Armitage, ‘The Pendle Witch Child’ takes as its starting point the appearance of nine-year-old Jennet Devices at Lancaster Assizes in August 1612. Jennet gives evidence implicating most of her family and various others. The outcome of the trial is ten hangings.

From this, Armitage and writer/director Ros Ereira tease out the complicated intersections of superstition, fear, religion, law, politics, forensics and the power of words, be they the oral testimonies of those accused or accusing, or the written records of the trial. Which was, apparently, a big bestseller in its day. As was the slim volume ‘Demonology’, by King James the First – a publication unique in British literature: a guide to the danger of witches and the best way to deal with them, written by the then reigning monarch. ‘Demonology’, in its closing pages, offers guidance to courts on trying witches.

If kingly law-making influenced by superstition isn’t jaw-dropping enough – and it’s definitely not the kind of thing that crops up in ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ or ‘Kavanagh QC’ – then Jennet’s catastrophic testimony effectively established a precedent regarding the giving of evidence by child witnesses. Something that would come back to haunt her, and very nearly cost her life, two decades later when a young boy accused her of witchcraft. Early application of what we would now call forensic evidence helped demolish the case, after which it was discovered that her accuser and his father were running a money-with-menaces scheme whereby any local women who didn’t pay up were accused by the lad.

It all paints a damning picture of a certain period in British history, one that Armitage and Ereira link to the ‘boogeyman’ mentality of our current age – if it isn’t paedophile rings that the media are telling us to be terrified of, it’s the threat of terrorism, this latter exploited by governments to justify rendition, detention and torture – to speculate that, while superstition doesn’t have the grip on society that it used to, other forces compel us to act in ways that prove human nature hasn’t changed much in 400 years.

Armitage’s low-key and dryly ironic presenting style is well suited to such heavy and often dispiriting material. A probation officer before his literary career took off, he’s the ideal person to guide the viewer through the labyrinthine and archaic workings of the law and the courts. Exteriors shot at Lancaster Castle – where the Jennets and others were jailed in 1612, and still a working prison until 2011 – are particularly atmospheric. Indeed, location work is used well here, and the ‘talking heads’ aesthetic that so often scuppers documentaries is sparing. Throughout, Ereira employs superimposed animations to dramatise the trial and the events leading up to it. They look odd and out-of-place to begin with, but take on a creepy life of their own as the narrative progresses.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: The Witch Who Came from the Sea

Numerology is very important in divination, and few numbers send a shiver down the spine that our unlucky friend itself: the number 13. Which is why, friends, I always review 13 horror films during October. But as a prelude to this evening’s film, let’s consider a less immediately auspicious number: 72. That’s how many titles were on the DPP’s list during the UK video nasties controversy, itself as fine an act of spell-casting as any witch could hope for and requiring neither wolfsbane nor eye of newt. Requiring, in fact, only a few acres of newsprint and an infinitely gullible public.

I’ve seen quite a few of the 72 titles on said list – 39 were successfully prosecuted for obscenity, the others were guilty by association – and many of them have led me to a sad but inescapable conclusion: membership of the video nasties club doesn’t necessarily make a film nasty. In fact, a lot of them – ‘The Mardi Gras Massacre’ and ‘Anthrophagus: The Beast’ spring immediately to mind – are downright boring.

Of course, there are bona fide works of visceral nastiness to be found – a big round of applause, if you please, for ‘Cannibal Holocaust’: your flight attendant will be able to provide you with sick buckets – as well as a couple of items that flirt around the edges of the art-house camp, and one – Andrzej Zulawski’s ‘Possession’ – that belongs in said camp entirely.

But we’re here tonight, dear readers, to consider a film that strives to do something provocative and intelligent with its material while leaving one foot planted firmly, obstinately and defiantly in exploitation territory. ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’ is a curious work, directed by Matt Cimber, a man whose filmography tells its own story (‘Africanus Sexualis’, ‘Lady Cocoa’, ‘Alias Big Cherry’ and the Pia Zadora vehicle ‘Butterfly’), starring former Oscar nominee Millie Perkins as a sexually disturbed multiple murderess and written by her husband Robert Thom.

Thom was the writer of such lurid fare as ‘The Legend of Lylah Clare’, ‘Angel, Angel, Down We Go’, ‘Bloody Mama’ and ‘Death Race 2000’. Subtlety, we can immediate infer, was not one of his hallmarks. Perkins, too, is something of an eccentric talent. She made her debut in 1959 in the title role of George Stevens’s ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and picked up her Oscar nom in the process. TV work and small roles in the likes of ‘Ensign Pulver’ and ‘The Shooting’ occupied her for a decade or so. In 1974, she made an impression in Monte Hellman’s ever-so-slightly controversial ‘Cockfighter’, then two years later torn demonically into the lead role of ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’.

Which is where we came in.

It’s easy to see why ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’ fell foul of the curtain-twitching guardians of the UK’s collective morality: a clearer correlation between sex and violence – in fact, an interweaving of sex and violence – you’d be hard pressed to imagine. And if the sight of a bare-ass naked Molly (Perkins) cutting loose with a straight razor on an equally bare-ass naked male victim isn’t enough, try juxtaposing that kind of imagery with flashbacks that leave you in no doubt that a pre-pubescent Molly was sexually abuse by her corpulent, gloating, wet-lipped father.

Did that last sentence induce a bit of uncomfortable squirming? To watch the film is to squirm uncomfortably for an hour and twenty-eight minutes. There’s something “off” about ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’ from the start: the opening scene has Molly chaperoning her pre-teen nephews Tod and Tripoli at beach; one sibling has the other buried to his neck in sand while Molly gazes out across the light-fragmented waves and drones on dreamily about their sea captain grandfather, lost somewhere out there on the ocean and a fine man beloved of all.

And even before we learn that said individual was a slovenly pederast beloved of absolutely no-one, there’s something here that seems wrong. There’s a washed-out disconnectedness to the cinematography (by John Carpenter’s go-to guy Dean Cundey; a weirdness to the sound design; a woozy disjointedness to the editing. Images appear in negative, saturated with artificial colour.

The performances are all pitched at a slightly non-naturalistic level, from Perkins’s vacillations between wide-eyed child-like naivety to raging she-devil, to Vanessa Brown’s mounting hysteria as Molly’s sister Cathy, to Lonny Chapman’s grizzled scenery-chewing as Long John, owner to the nautical themed bar where Molly works. All of these actors, and the characters they inhabit, exist within the same fictive space and interact as if they’ve known each other for years, but there’s something about the way they play off each other – or maybe the way they don’t – that doesn’t quite gel. And I can’t for the life of me figure out whether Cimber achieved this deliberately or whether it was a happy accident. Happy because the all-pervading sense of “off-ness” is what gives ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’ its curious power.

What is undoubtedly purposeful – Thom’s screenplay fixates on it to an unsubtle yet entirely effective degree – is the film’s commentary on contemporary lives lived according to and in the shadow of the false promises and images of television. Molly is obsessed with TV, and the dividing line between men she can have a functional sexual relationship with (Long John) and those she vents her fury on is whether they are real or products of television. Two big set pieces – one running almost ten minutes – put Molly in almost fantasy-based situations with people she has seen and effused over on the small screen and it becomes swiftly apparent that they are no more real to her for suddenly being corporeal.

Naturally, a flashback to the young Molly’s horribly ruined life with her father culminates in a scene where a TV set is destroyed. Molly’s adult life, then, has been spent arranging the past into a fiction and hammering it into the tightly compacted and easily turned-off emotive space the size of a portable black & white TV.

Many of the video nasties, for all their blood-gouting, innard-spilling brutality, key into the gothic terrors of yesteryear – the mythic figure of the sasquatch in ‘Night of the Demon’, ritual sacrifices to a pagan idol in ‘The Mardi Gras Massacre’, the so-called savages of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, the folkloric idea of a vengeful killer back from the dead in any number of slashers – but the nature of the nastiness in ‘The Witch Who Came from the Sea’, and the tropes and visual metaphors by which Molly’s descent into madness is mapped out, are strikingly contemporary.

Monday, October 23, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Witchtrap

On its original release, posters and promotional material for Kevin S Tenney’s ‘Witchtrap’ carried the weird caveat that it was not a sequel to his earlier film ‘Witchboard’. There was probably a very good legal reason for this, but it seems utterly disingenuous. Granted, the word “witch” features in the title, and there’s a late-in-the-game plot development whereby a female character becomes a conduit to a malevolent male spirit, but in no other respect does it even resemble ‘Witchboard’. Apart from, y’know, the bad acting and the over-egged direction.

What it does resemble – I’m not saying plagiarism, dig, just resemblance – is Fabrizio Laurenti’s ‘Witchcraft’ (a.k.a. ‘Witchery’, a.k.a. ‘La Casa 4’), made the previous year. Let’s run a quick check and see how many hits we get on the resemble-o-meter:

Prologue featuring terrified character sprinting down long corridors prior to plummeting out of a second story window? Check.

A prime piece of real estate afflicted by a supernatural presence? Check.

Owner of said real estate financially burdened to the point where they have to make a go of it as a residential concern or face massive losses? Check.

Female protagonist who is well-respected within her profession introduced via gratuitous nude scene? Check.

Two sets of characters – one camp believing in the supernatural, the other not – compelled to work together? Check.

Aforementioned supernatural presence arranging things so that said characters are essential trapped in said piece of prime real estate? Check.

A foiled escape attempt (by helicopter in ‘Witchcraft’, by car here)? Check.

Really really bad actor with a stupid name (Robert Champagne in ‘Witchcraft’, Rob Zapple here)? Check. Okay, that last one was a bit tenuous. But you get the point.

For what it’s worth, let’s romp through a ‘Witchtrap’ synopsis. Devon Lauder (Kevin S Tenney, stepping in at the last minute after the originally cast actor dropped out) inherits a big old house that happens to be haunted by his uncle Avery (J.P. Luebsen)’s ghost. The terms of Avery’s will disallow Devon from selling the property, and he needs to make a go of the place as guest house or face financial ruination. A publicity stunt with Vegas magician The Amazing Azimov (Richard Fraga) – Devon thinks he can generate interest in promoting the venue as an authentic haunted house – backfires when said conjuror is supernaturally tormentor and defenestrates from the second storey. At his wits’ end, Devon calls in husband-and-wife parapsychologist team Agnes (Judy Tatum) and Felix Goldberg (Rob Zapple). Agnes quickly assembles her team: hubby Felix is a “mental medium”, Whitney O’Shay (Kathleen Bailey) is a “physical medium”, and Ginger Kowowski (Linnea Quigley) is there to handle the recording equipment and look hot in a crop top.

Accompanying Agnes and co – at Devon’s explicit instruction given what happened to The Amazing Azimov – is private security consultant Murphy (Jack W Thompson) and his top operatives Tony Vicente (James W Quinn) and Leon Jackson (Clyde Talley II). Vincente is Asian (yup: fine Asian fine is Vicente) and Jackson is black and the supposedly matey bantz between them is as casually racist as it gets without being a Walt Disney film circa ‘Dumbo’ or ‘Song of the South’. It’s probably worth mentioning that Vincente is some sort of super-cop whom Murphy only tolerates because Vicente’s reputation pulls in a fuckton of business. In actuality, Murphy and Vicente hate each other and never miss an opportunity to trade barbed insults. It’s worth mentioning that not because it has any fucking impact on the plot, but because the script bludgeons the viewer over the head with it at roughly five minute intervals for at least 70% of the entire fucking running time.

Quite why the Murphy/Vincente antagony is so painstakingly established only not to result in any kind of payoff, I have no idea. But then I have no idea why a Jackson/Ginger romance is hinted at only for one of the participants to be almost offhandedly despatched. Nor why Vincente and Agnes seem to be developing an under-Felix’s-nose flirtation only for Vincente’s protectorship to switch to Whitney. Nor why the film’s called ‘Witchtrap’ when the antagonist is so obviously a warlock.

In its defence, though, ‘Witchtrap’ isn’t as egregiously bad as ‘Witchboard’ or ‘Witchcraft’: it’s pacier and more eventful than the former, and nowhere near as powerfully stupid or riddled by inconsistencies as the latter. It is, however, the least well-acted of the three, with only Quinn bothering to create a character and deliver his lines with a bit of bite. Tatum and Bailey are almost inseparable in their woodenness; eventually the only way I could tell them apart was that Tatum had the scratchy voice and the stilted delivery while Bailey had the squeaky voice and the stilted delivery.

Still, every character in a film like this is essentially expendable: even those singled out from the start as Male Lead and Final Girl remain mere ciphers. The big bad is what counts in this type of flick, whether it’s a psycho-killer, a ghost, a demon, a warlock or an undead tax inspector. And Luebsen as Avery Lauder – while never likely to give Jason or Freddy or Pennywise a run for their money – does at least invest his characterisation with enough flamboyant malevolence to make the proceedings worthwile. In particular, Avery’s manipulation of a character who makes a final reel escape attempt gives the film its most effective sequence.

There’s also a sub-plot involving voyeuristic groundsman Elwin (Hal Havins) – a former associate of Avery’s – who comes across as well fucking dodgy from the outset and loses no time in going into complete meltdown. Whether a deliberate aesthetic decision or because Tenney’s script couldn’t be bothered to establish motivation, it’s never entirely certain whether the second-fiddle antagonist he becomes is due to Avery’s supernatural influence or his own mental health issues. I strongly suspect the ambiguity was accidental, but it’s definitely welcome and kicks against the boilerplate narrative beats elsewhere, so I’m not complaining.

Kevin S Tenney notched up his B-movie meisterwerk second time out with ‘Night of the Demon’, a quantum leap from the hack work of his feature debut ‘Witchboard’. ‘Witchtrap’ was his third role of the genre dice and he got enough things right to suggest a career path as a dependable purveyor of the cheap and nasty. How dependable? Well, the Winter of Discontent is just round the corner. Maybe it’s time to sample more of his wares …

Saturday, October 21, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: The Last Witch Hunter

Using the word “last” in your film title is both a signifier of dramatic content (how can what’s onscreen not be some kind of götterdämmerung?) and a self-styled elevation to some pretty impressive company. ‘The Last Picture Show’. ‘The Last Tycoon’. ‘The Last of the Mohicans’. ‘The Last Waltz’. ‘The Last Emperor’. ‘The Last Seduction’. ‘The Last Detail’*.

And that’s why it’s so galling when lesser films go the “last” route. ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’. ‘The Last Castle’. ‘The Last Airbender’ (a film that sounds like it’s about the fin de siecle of flatulence). ‘The Last Boy Scout’. It’s as if you’d announced your piece of cinematic product as ‘The Last Motherfucking Badass Motherfucker’ and what unspooled through the projector was basically every single episode of ‘Ivor the Engine’ edited to feature length.

Which is a 130-word way of saying that a film entitled ‘The Last Witch Hunter’ sets up certain expectations. Granted, certain elements begin to undermine said expectations – Exhibit A: “starring Vin Diesel”; Exhibit B: “directed by Brett Eisner” – but then you note the presence of Michael Caine, Rose Leslie and Elijah Wood in the supporting cast. And besides, it’s called ‘The Last Witch Hunter’. I mean, c’mon, who doesn’t want to spend an hour forty-six minutes on a film called ‘The Last Witch Hunter’?


Oh. Okay.

So it is just me then.


‘The Last Witch Hunter’ (hereinafter ‘TLWH’) kicks off with a prologue set at some indeterminate point in history. I’d like to be charitable and describe it as the middle ages, but I rather think the production designer had watched too much ‘Game of Thrones’ (maybe he had some say in Leslie’s casting?). Some bearded dudes with heavy duty swords and axes venture through a wintry landscape and come across the lair of a witch queen (Julie Engelbrecht). Their numbers are decimated as the witch queen’s legions unleash themselves. Eventually, though it’s a smackdown between the witch queen and Kaulder (Diesel). Kaulder wields a sword of fire (yeah, that’s pretty much your first quality control plummet right there). He runs the witch through; the witch mortally wounds him.

But Kaulder doesn’t die. The witch queen curses him with immortal life. Cut to: the early twentieth century and Kaulder is working for a shadowy ecumenical organisation called the Axe and Cross (which every single cast member manages to enunciate as a single word – Axsunkross – making it sound like the world’s least convincing German death metal band), wherein he’s aided by a series of individuals known as Dolans. Each Dolan is a sort of composite butler, advisor and biographer. Kind of like Beauchamp from ‘Unforgiven’ crossed with Alfred the butler from the Batman films. The Alfred comparison is strengthened by the fact that Kaulder’s current Dolan (the 36th shadowy priest to have held the position, and on the verge of retirement) is played by Michael Caine. Not the Michael Caine of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or ‘The Prestige’, unfortunately – you know, the Michael Caine who’s interested in the role and committed to the performance – but the Michael Caine of, say, ‘Jaws: The Revenge’ or ‘The Fourth Protocol’: the Michael Caine who’s basically sleepwalking through each day on set while he tops up his retirement fund.

Anyway, Caine’s 36th Dolan doesn’t get much chance to enjoy his retirement. His internment and Elijah Wood’s swearing in as Dolan numero 37 occur on the same day. 37 tries to ingratiate himself with Kaulder, to limited effect. Kaulder isn’t convinced that 36’s death was natural: “I’ve seen men get old, retire and die – just not on the same day”.

Unfolding against an uneasy truce between elementals and the church – facilitated by a witches’ council – what follows, never mind how fuck-awful in conception and execution, is a pacy and entertaining enough romp through a bit of hasty world-building (or rather underworld-building, since the film is set in an immediately recognisable Big Apple where the witchy and warlocky business is done in basement bars, caverns and abandoned churches). For its first hour or so, it’s pretty much a procedural as eternal loner Kaulder, shoving 37 into the background, cuts a swathe through NYC’s coven community in search of the big bad. En route, he encounters bar owner, sorceress and dreamwalker Chloe (Leslie, who I’d love to see revisit the character in a spin-off): witch and witch-hunter form an alliance.

For its last act, ‘TLWH’ goes into full-on CGI mode as Kaulder’s investigation leads back to his erstwhile encounter with the witch queen and the nature of his immortality is threatened. These aren’t spoilers by the way, the narrative is just very predictable. The CGI is questionable. The stakes, however, are given a little weight. There’s a moment where it looks like Kaulder is eff ewe kay tee fukt, and that at least is something interesting in a Vin Diesel film.

Elsewhere, however, things are strictly boilerplate. The performances are as you’d expect. Leslie does her best, Wood wears the perpetually sad expression of one who once had a proper film career and it wasn’t so long ago either, Caine we have already spoken of, and Diesel we probably shouldn’t speak of. When an actor takes his stage name** from the acronym for vehicle identification number and a combustible fuel, it tells you all you need to know, non? Put it this way: if you saw a poster for an action movie starring Chassis Petrol or Engineblock Benzin, you wouldn’t expect a Paul Schofield or Christopher Plummer level of thespian excellence, would you?

And that’s exactly what you get in ‘TLWH’: a Vin Diesel performance attuned to the expected aesthetic of a Vin Diesel film. If only it had been Rose Leslie vs The Witch Queen From Hell.

*A film ‘The Last Witch Hunter’ should have emulated, in my humble opinion. Vin Diesel walking into a shitty dive, slamming a cross down on the bar and declaring “I am the motherfucking witch patrol, motherfucker” would have been instantly more iconic than anything on offer in the actual film.

**Vin Diesel’s birth name is Mark Sinclair.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: The Love Witch

A true one-off, this flick, and very difficult to quantify using any set of critical perameters. As an example of auteur theory, ‘The Love Witch’ is pretty much the ne plus ultra. The phrase a “film by” has seldom been so completely laid claim to as by Anna Biller who was responsible for its script, score, production, direction, set decoration, art direction, production design and costume design. IMDb doesn’t drill down into such detail, but I’d be willing to put money on her doing the catering, making the tea and designing the poster.

If Biller is the one-woman force of nature that got the film off the ground, Samantha Robinson as the eponymous sorceress makes it fly.

Robinson plays Elaine, a stylish, sexy but somehow slightly strange woman who arrives in a burst of colour and enigma in a small town and proceeds to turn the heads of most of its menfolk. I say “slightly strange” because everything in ‘The Love Witch’ is off-kilter: the camerawork has the too-bright intensity and in-your-face angles of classic gialli, the colours are unnatural, the performances are deliberately stilted, the production design locates the film in some fictive netherworld between 1963 and yesterday, and the music is as if Burt Bacharach suddenly became really interested in Anton LaVey.

Does the above sound like I’m handing out a half-and-half serving of compliment and bitchiness? All I can say is that ‘The Love Witch’ offers, simultaneously, the undiluted artistic expression of its creator and a viewing experience almost guaranteed to have the audience wondering just who the fuck Biller made it for. Its giallo stylisations overlay the first twenty minutes or so only, and moreover its narrative choices and mise en scene are utterly removed from the genre. Its depiction of witchery seems more like a conflation of mental illness and paganism. Its feminist trappings are at best confused. A weird second-half scene, extended to such a length that it must have conceived as meaningful, has a group of wandering minstrels enact a Shakespeare-cum-Wicker-Man-cum-support-group play involving a fake marriage. The whole thing is so po-faced and earnest and abjectly pointless that the only polite response is to gawp at the screen and not snigger.

Granted, most of the film is pitched at the level of pastiche rather than outright spoof or ironic commentary – an artistic decision which negates an entire swathe of conventional critical tropes – but the play scene exists in an entirely different register from anything else. It marks the point at which complete artistic control stumbles over the cracked paving stone of self-indulgence and falls face-first into the sinkhole of what-the-fuckery.

‘The Love Witch’ is a striking and original film that is engaging and entertaining and thought-provoking for approximately 60% of its needlessly extended two hour running time, and you can fuck me with a wagstick from here to the next equinox if the rest of it even remotely belongs on a length of celluloid that could otherwise have been used for road safety commercials.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: Blair Witch

In 1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s ‘The Blair Witch Project’ came out of nowhere, terrified a generation, and opened the doors for far more “found footage” horror movies than were strictly necessary. It was a cultural phenomenon and tapped into … actually, I don’t know what the fuck it tapped into. I didn’t rate it at all. In fact, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ remains high in the top ten of Most Boring Movies I’ve Sat Through On The Big Screen.

I never even bothered with ‘Blair Witch 2: Book of Cash-In’ and from what I’ve heard of it, I was wise not to. Wish I could say the same of Adam Wingard’s ‘Blair Witch’, its oddly truncated title – suggesting a reboot while it’s actually a “15 years later…” sequel to the original – the least of its problems.

Wingard is one of those directors – like Ti West – who’s carved out a prolific career for a relatively young filmmaker, who turns out confident work on micro-budgets, who often attracts “future of the genre” epithets, and yet never seems to achieve that move to the mainstream the way, for instance, Jordan Peele has with ‘Get Out’. Nor is Wingard quite as smart a director as West or Peele, though parts of ‘You’re Next’ hinted at greater things.

‘Blair Witch’, however, doesn’t. In fact, all ‘Blair Witch’ hints at is the tired cult of remakes that is slowly draining the life from contemporary horror films. Sure, the film is a delayed sequel in which Heather-from-the first-film’s brother (who, given the timeframe, must have been in the neo-natal clinic when she disappeared) sees some footage online and leads a mismatched group of wannabe documentary filmmakers into the woods etc etc, and sure, they’ve got better kit than Heather & co., including a drone, but ‘Blair Witch’ is an almost beat-by-beat remake. It’s certainly a yell-by-yell remake in terms of how bratty and argumentative the principles are. And a shake-by-shake remake as far as the camerawork is concerned.

Where Wingard does pay lip service to originality, he achieves little. There are more principles this time round, including two locals, which should have shaken up the group’s dynamic, but instead just results in more people yelling at each other. There’s a drone to give us aerial shots of how vast the forest is when the endless shots of the group tramping through yet more swathes of woodland on ground entirely establishes the sense of scale anyway. There’s more business at the scary old house at the end, but whereas the original generated a sense of the unexplained by ending at the exact point at which it did, ‘Blair Witch’ plods around the scary old house for fifteen minutes and starts grabbing at anything it can just to fill up the time – tunnels, crawlspaces, characters who had earlier disappeared returning as servants of the witch, a huge God-light that illuminates the scary old house for no other reason, presumably, than someone on the production managed to get their hands on a Kleig light and figured they may as well use it.

Worse is still to come: ‘Blair Witch’ lumbers towards a conclusion straight out of the M. Night Shyamalan twist-ending-for-its-own-sake playbook. A twist that relies on the kind of temporal monkey-business – day suddenly becoming endless night, one character ageing visibly while the others don’t, and a summary of the bootstrap paradox for the YouTube generation – that you can only really get away with if you have a Tardis and a Gallifreyan birth certificate.

‘Blair Witch’ is a wretched piece of work whose 89-minute running time feels like you’ve sat through ‘Satantango’ with commercial breaks every quarter of an hour.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: Witchcraft

Um. You know how I said in my last review that I’d find a better film for the fifth offering in this year’s 13 For Halloween? Basically, I’m a lying bastard.

How big a piece of shit is ‘Witchcraft’? Let’s subject it to the cinematic equivalent of the Bristol stool chart: David Hasselhoff is in it, and he doesn’t give the worst performance.

But before we interrogate the cast to find out who is the guiltiest, a word on the title. The opening credits of the copy I watched identified it as ‘Witchcraft’, with the subtitle ‘Evil Encounters’ in brackets. IMDb has it as ‘Witchery’. It was released in the UK as ‘Ghosthouse 2’, and it is in fact an in-name sequel to ‘Ghosthouse’, which was the UK title of Umberto Lenzi’s ‘La Casa 3’; the original title of ‘Witchcraft’ is ‘La Casa 4’ and it trades down Lenzi quite spectacularly for Fabrizio Laurenti (directing under the pseudonym Martin Newlin).

What it isn’t is the Rob Spera film ‘Witchcraft’ (released the same year, just to confuse things). Rob Spera’s ‘Witchcraft’ is a wretched PoS that launched a ridiculously long-running franchise – sixteen instalments, the most recent completed last year – where T&A is the entire aesthetic raison d’être.

Ten minutes into Laurenti’s ‘Witchcraft’, I found myself wishing I was watching Spera’s ‘Witchcraft’ or any of its execrable sequels.

Laurenti’s ‘Witchcraft’ starts with a heavily pregnant young woman being chased along a beach by several pilgrim-looking types. They’re carrying farm implements and dressed like they made the best sartorial effort possible to audition for ‘The Crucible’ but were crucially let down by their lack of thespian talent. The pursuit continues as the girl dashes into a beachfront hotel of far more modern construction than the historical period suggested by the costumes, an observation quickly compounded by the appearance, on one wall, of a fuse box. But still, this is swiftly revealed as a dream sequence, so I guess we can let the anachronism slide. The girl runs down a long corridor, occasionally stopping to try one of the doors to either side. All are locked, and she yanks at the door knobs and slams her hand against the timber of the doors with increasing desperation. But if you watch the scene closely (i.e. with your eyes open and a minimum of one synapse firing in your brain), you’ll notice that all the doors have a key in the lock. Every. Single. One. Yeah, I know it’s a dream sequence, but foxtrot foxtrot sierra.

Awaking from this dream is the also-heavily-pregnant Jane Brooks (Linda Blair), and because her waters could break at any moment, it’s deemed appropriate that she accompany her privileged but crotchety parents Rose (Annie Ross) and Freddie (Robert Champagne) to view a piece of real estate on a Massachusetts island that requires a boat crossing in bad weather. And because the trip won’t at all be boring for someone of his age group, they take Jane’s considerably younger brother Tommy (Michael Manchester) as well. Also along for the trip are nymphomaniac sexpot architect Linda Sullivan (Catherine Hickland) and junior partner real estate agent Jerry Giordano (Rick Farnsworth). No prizes for guessing that the property they’re interested in requiring for development is the creepy hotel from Jane’s dream.

It takes an interminable half hour to get these individuals to the hotel. Early scenes have the Brookses engage Linda’s services before they even visit the realtor to request a viewing (!) – the real estate appointment is hilarious, Jerry greeting them as “Mr Brook, Mrs Brooks”, as if he’d barely glanced at the script, couldn’t quite remember their characters’ surname and went for both iterations as if no-one would notice – while Jane is almost killed by a falling girder (it’s being lifted by a crane and swung across a busy city street on the opposite side of which is a construction site: health and safety, much?) and Tommy has a strange encounter with a woman in black (Hildegard Knef, slumming it). And yes, Knef’s character is literally referred to as “the woman in black” in a “let’s hope Susan Hill’s lawyer’s don’t get wind of this” kind of way.

Could the woman in black possibly be connected with the creepy hotel? Well, since Jerry’s sales pitch includes this humdinger – “they’ve got a lot of legends about this island: witches and rainbows and shit” – it seems likely. Though why she tries to kill Jane with the falling girder before the scene even shifts to the island when her nefarious plans are entirely dependent on Jane being at the island, I couldn’t rightly say.

Okay, we’ve just got two more characters to introduce, then we’re ready for the fun and games. Leslie (Leslie Cumming) – her character apparently merit a surname – is a virginal author who’s squatting in the hotel while she translates a German text on witchcraft. This probably made fifty shades of sense in the early script meetings. Joining her is horny photographer Gary (David Hasselhoff), ostensibly there to take the photographs which will accompany the text of a book Leslie hasn’t even started writing yet, but demonstrating more interest in introducing her to the pleasures of the flesh. Leslie testily rebuffs him at every approach.

So: everyone converges at the hotel, supernatural shenanigans ensure their passage back to the mainland is scuppered, and a fearsome storm lashes the island. At least that’s what the script says. In fact, it gets so bad at one point that Jerry’s father (Tony Cammarata), attempting a rescue mission, is foiled at a sea crossing and instead reaches the island by means of a helicopter. That’s how stormy it is. That’s dangerous the waters are. Now here’s a screengrab of the moment the helicopter arrives at the island. In the middle of a storm, remember:

This is the beginning of a five minute sequence in which the characters in the hotel try to attract Jerry’s attention, the helicopter buggers off after they fail to do so, and Gary and Leslie run desperately out of the hotel as the doors (mysteriously locked when the chopper appears) spring open again. It’s an integrated sequence and pretty much staged in real time. It begins at twilight, cuts in some searchlight shots filmed in total darkness, and concludes in broad daylight.

Shots that don’t match and lapses in continuity are par for the course in cheapies of this ilk, but ‘Witchcraft’ seems to take a perverse delight in presenting the audience images that are blithely at odds with what’s in the script. Take this shot, which plays off a discussion about leaving the island because the tide’s going out:

Boy, that tide sure has receded. You can barely see the water!

Or this one …

… where Gary tells a fully-dressed Linda, “Get dressed, we’ve got to leave immediately.”

Being charitable, though, these distractions did at least give me something to focus on other than the story itself, because – sweet baby Jesus in a mosh pit – ‘Witchcraft’ is pure 80s DTV boilerplate. There’s nothing remotely scary, creepy or even moderately tense on offer. Even the big scene where everyone desperately tries to get out of the house as the helicopter buzzes over the hotel, its searchlight not picking out a single sign of life, is robbed of any suspense due to Hasselhoff’s manic bounding from one side of the frame to the other, arms flailing and head jerking this way and that, as if hellbent on anyone else’s performance not being allowed to register.

Meanwhile, as characters fall one by one to the woman in black’s sinister machinations, Laurenti’s vision of the alternative-hotel they find themselves trapped in has all the raw visceral terror of a Duran Duran video. ‘Girls on Film’ maybe. Actually, the ‘Girls on Film’ video had more nudity than ‘Witchcraft’.

At 92 minutes, ‘Witchcraft’ is a long slog. One or two individual shots are competently composed, otherwise the overall standard of filmmaking is dire. The music doesn’t bear thinking of, let alone writing about. The script is garbage soaked in bilgewater. As for the performances, let’s bring this review back to where it started – Hasselhoff as not the worst in show – and end with the crimes against acting on display here. The verdicts are as follows:

Knef – career doldrums hamminess with enough self-deprecation that you know she’s not taking any of it seriously: charges dismissed.

Manchester – kid in a trashy film doing his best with what bad scriptwriters imagine is the way kids act: charges dismissed.

Ross – autopilot but not terrible: extenuating circumstances, non-custodial sentence.

Hickland – daytime soap actress required to do nothing but toss her hair and given the thankless task of trying to convince in a love scene with the wettest lettuce in the cast: extenuating circumstances, non-custodial sentence.

Hasselhoff – attention-seeking overacting: guilty, take him down.

Blair, Cumming, Farnsworth – utterly terrible, amateurish performances; general uncertainty as to the location of the camera in any given scene: guilty, take them down.

And finally our worst offender – Robert Champagne, a man whose surname is wonderfully at odds with his complete lack of sparkle onscreen. His performance isn’t just bad, it reaches a nadir – during one of the worst death scenes I’ve ever witnessed in all my years of watching trashy movies – where the film almost disappears into a black hole of Champagne’s single-handed creation. Guilty. Lock him up and throw away the key.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #4: I Married a Witch

In 1935, Rene Clair directed ‘The Ghost Goes West’, a sparkling confection of romantic-comedic-supernatural shenanigans that remains an evergreen classic. Seven years later, with ‘I Married a Witch, it seemed like all he needed to do was whatever he’d done on the set of ‘The Ghost Goes West’ and Bob’s your possibly spectral uncle.

Sadly, the magic didn’t happen second time around; and equally sadly your humble blogger had this idiot idea that every film in this year’s 13 For Halloween selection would have the word “witch” in the title, so we’re stuck with ‘I Married a Witch’ when we could have been talking about ‘The Ghost Goes West’.

Mind you, thirteen films with “ghost” in the title would have gifted me a handful of classics and then left me to scrabble with the backfill of a certain syrupy Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore vehicle, ‘Ghost Rider’, ‘Ghost Ship’ and any dispiriting number of others.

Dispiriting. Geddit? (The films delivers a similar gag, using whisky bottles.)

Oh boy, can’t you tell I’m avoiding writing about ‘I Married a Witch’? Okay, deep breath, let’s hammer out a couple of hundred words and I promise I’ll have a better movie for you next time. There are two specific reasons why the film doesn’t work despite Clair being the absolute right director for this type of material. The first, ironically enough, is the source material itself. ‘I Married a Witch’ is adapted from ‘The Passionate Witch’, a novel by Thorne Smith that was published posthumously after being completed by a friend of the author’s. Smith’s literary reputation – though maybe I should put some quotation marks the size of jet aircraft around “literary” – was little more than a peddler of smut. The unfinished manuscript of ‘The Passionate Witch’ was finished off by someone who was a lesser writer even than Smith. None of this boded well for an adaptation.

The second reason is not just an abject lack of chemistry between the stars – Fredric March and Veronica Lake – but the fact that they outright hated each other. March drifts through the film, palpably bored by the material. Lake – gorgeous enough to make a camera lens start composing romantic poetry – was a shoe-in for film noir femme fatale roles, but seems at a loss with the screwball comedy. Far better, albeit squandered in a nothing part, is Susan Hayward; she gets the (attempted) joke and plays the few scenes the script bothers to give her to the hilt. I could weep for a version of ‘I Married a Witch’ where Hayward had Veronica Lake’s role, Cary Grant had Frederic March’s, and the script just, y’know, worked it a bit more.

Having said all that, it’s not an entire write-off. The opening sequence is witty and incorporates a meta-joke half a century before “meta” was even a concept. Some effective potshots are taken at political campaigning and the kind of people who financially back candidates. There’s an interrupted wedding scene that gets funnier the longer it goes on; the frustrated attempts of a soprano of the Florence Foster Jenkins ilk to complete her showpiece are capped by a blunt but perfectly delivered punchline. Elsewhere, though, the humour is so laboured you’d think it was on a chain-gang, and the ending – doubtlessly intended as madcap – flails around in desperation and generates precious few laughs.

See it, if at all, for Hayward and the wedding sequence.

Ooops, just realised. I never got round to synopsizing the plot or even hinting at what the film’s about. Never mind. Clue’s in the title.

Monday, October 09, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: Season of the Witch

Heard the one about the two Knights Templar (nope, not the Armando de Ossorio version, though stick around for the Winter of Discontent and I’ll see what I can do) who happily battle their way side by side through a decade’s worth of holy wars only to get upset when innocent women and children die in the Lord’s name, down tools in protest and walk off the job?

No? Oh, it’s hilarious. It goes like this:

There’s these two knights, The Moody Self-Righteous One (Nicolas Cage) and The One Who’s Only In It For The Booze And The Whores (Ron Perlman) and they fuck off the job and go for an epic wander along the shores of Styria (an entirely landlocked country: told you it was hilarious) and fetch up in a small town where they’re recognised, arrested and given the opportunity to redeem their contractual transgression with the church by transporting a witch (Claire Foy) to a monastery because she might hold the key to the plague that’s ravaging the land.

Maybe the script offers a rationale for the above. I’ll be honest: my attention wandered a little while I was watching ‘Season of the Witch’. That’s “wandered” as in I checked my emails, posted something on Facebook, flicked through a volume or poetry, and philosophically contemplated the silent encroachment of rust on the bottom of the living room radiator.

I’ll be even more honest: there were three set pieces that drew my eyes back to the screen – the montage of battles that see our heroes become increasingly disaffected with the knightly life; a vertiginous rope-bridge crossing that plays like ‘Wages of Fear’ by way of ‘Steptoe and Son’; and an extended smack-down with a legion of zombie monks (yes, you read that correctly) – and beyond that it was down to whether Claire Foy was onscreen or not.

To say that Foy is the best thing about the film is a backhanded compliment, since it’s not exactly bristling with good things. Yeah, the double-act between Cage and Perlman is better than any of us had any right to expect, and at least we get a moderately subdued Cage performance here and none of the scenery-munching histrionics of ‘Ghost Rider’ or the execrable ‘Wicker Man’ remake. And yeah, the production design is okay, and the running time – a shade over an hour and a half – means that ‘Season of the Witch’ doesn’t outstay its welcome too egregiously. But none of these things actually constitute grounds for recommendation.

Claire Foy’s performance does. As the witch who might not be a witch – who might, in fact, be something worse – her characterisation weaves sinuously between coquettish, mocking, omniscient, naïve and demonic. She’s magnetic and unpredictable, creating a genuinely effective antagonist.

There’s no punchline to this review, by the way. This is a film directed by Dominic Sena which was subject to reshoots by Brett fucking Ratner. It would be wicked to mock the afflicted.

Friday, October 06, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: Witchboard

Six years ago, on this very blog, I reviewed Kevin S. Tenney’s ‘Night of the Demons’, and came to the conclusion that it was “a delivery system for boobs, blood and rampant swathes of what-the-fuckery”. Tenney’s previous film, made two years before ‘Night of the Demons’, was ‘Witchboard’ and it would be nice to say that seeds of the aforementioned aesthetic were being sown here.

It would be very nice to say that.

Hell, let’s at least try to make a case.

How does ‘Witchboard’ fare in terms of boobs? Apart from an overhead shot of Tawny Kitaen taking a shower – don’t get excited, Whitesnake fans, the shower’s running hot and the steam obscures everything of interest – not really.

Blood? Some, but the kill scenes are stingily apportioned throughout a 97-minute movie that seems to last a lot longer. Granted, there is a death-by-sundial scene that ups the ante and briefly arouses the interest, but on the whole there’s not much going on that you haven’t seen in a billion other shabby shockers.

Rampant swathes of what-the-fuckery? Ah, this is where ‘Witchboard’ really misses out. Whereas ‘Night of the Demons’ has such demented moments as a tube of lipstick disappearing into a woman’s nipple, or the entrance to a funeral parlour suddenly morphing into a brick wall the moment the weird shit goes down and the protagonists try to escape, the best ‘Witchboard’ can do is a few dream sequences that are all billowing curtains, fog machine, huge staircases and even bigger hair.

Also, ‘Night of the Demons’ has Amelia Kinkade as the ultimate bad girl demon while ‘Witchboard’ has Tawny Kitaen as a dopey housewife. With big hair.

Part of me wants to wrap up this review with a quick “so watch ‘Night of the Demons’ instead and you can happily tick the Kevin S. Tenney box on your checklist of trash viewing” epithet – and I’d be entirely justified in doing so under any set of critical parameters – but goll-darnit, I set out to write a review of ‘Witchboard’, so a motherloving review of ‘Witchboard’ is what you’re getting. Like it or not.

(The Agitation of the Mind: putting the reader first since 2007.)

‘Witchboard’ opens with a ten-minute sequence at a party thrown by entitled white girl Linda (Kitaen) and her bit-of-rough working class boyfriend Jim (Todd Allen). Most of the guests are Linda’s ivy league friends; only a couple of Jim’s construction site buddies stop by. Tensions run high from the outset, mainly due to the presence of smarmy rich boy Brandon (Stephen Nichols). Backstory: Jim and Brandon grew up together after the latter’s parents took Jim in because his parents were alcoholic fuck-ups; Jim aspires to go to med school but drops out; Jim and Brandon fall out over Linda. None of the characterisations by the three principles even comes close to selling this melodramatic poop.

Anyway, back to the party: Brandon is holding court and acting like a douchebag, Jim is hitting the JDs like Lynchburg is about to go into receivership, and Linda is exasperated by the pair of them. As a result of a big theological debate between Brandon and another party guest – said individual disappears after this scene, never to be seen again – Brandon pulls out a ouija board and –

Yep, I know what you’re thinking: how does one of these things logically bring us to the other? I don’t know either. I’m guessing that the script notes went something like this:

1. Big theological debate.
2. ???
3. Ouija board
4. Scary shit
5.Rest of movie

Using the same reductive technique, “rest of movie” subdivides to:

5a. Rip off ‘The Omen’ a bit
5b. Wacky medium
5c. Road trip/bromance
5d. Love conquers all finale

Yep, I know what you’re thinking: what the fuck is with 5b and 5c? I’ll answer those questions one at a time. Brandon, intuiting that Linda has been using the ouija board unsupervised, enlists the help of medium Zarabeth (Kathleen Wilhoite) to investigate the weird goings-on at Jim and Linda’s place and, if necessary, kick out any evil spirits. Zarabeth duly shows up in a goth-cum-witch-doctor ensemble that has to be seen to be disbelieved, acts all goofy-creepy, and throws out dialogue alternating between surfer/slacker and motherfucking P.G. Wodehouse. Seriously: who addresses all and sundry as “dude” then departs with a fey “TTFN” [ta-ta for now]? Zarabeth is basically the creation of filmmakers who decided to appeal to the John Hughes demographic with a goth character but fundamentally misunderstand both goths and John Hughes fans.

In respect of the road trip/bromance, events force Linda offstage and while she recuperates Jim and Brandon go cruising the byways and highways to research the life (and death) of the spirit Linda has summoned, and rekindle their friendship as a result. They visit libraries, try to find people using a telephone directory, find help at an esoteric second hand bookshop, and go prowling round a graveyard at night because this film was made in 1986 and the world was only a decade off having them go on the internet and find everything out and still hate each at the end of a 90-second montage and ten minutes would have been shaved off the running time.

Sarcasm notwithstanding, the road trip is easily the best part of the film, even though it’s no surprise to note that when the chips are down and Linda’s very soul is at stake, the guy who lost her stops being a dick and goes the distance while the guy who has her still behaves like a douchebag. Or maybe it’s a deficiency in Tenney’s script that Brandon was an okay guy all along but he had to act the big wanktard in the party scene in order to kick start the plot.

But we’re down to semantics here. ‘Witchboard’ presents a boilerplate but not unentertaining way of passing 97 minutes. Nichols’s performance is acceptable; everyone else’s isn’t. It’s nicely shot and not all of the effects are bad. The title is a non sequitur. Board, yes; as in ouija. Witch, no. There’s shag all to do with witches or witchcraft here. I wondered briefly whether Tenney was trying to capitalise on the ‘Witchcraft’ franchise, but the first of those particular opuses wouldn’t debut until two years after ‘Witchboard’.

This isn’t semantics, however. If you’re going to call your film ‘Witchboard’, then throw in a little witchery.

Monday, October 02, 2017

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: The Witch: A New England Folktale

In the song ‘God Was Drunk When He Made Me’, Jim White wonders “who built the house of brotherly love / then let the Devil come dancing in?” Applied to Robert Eggers’s debut film ‘The Witch’, the answer would be William (Ralph Ineson). It’s 1630-ish in New England and we first meet William on trial for the village elders and vehemently refusing to back down on a point of Biblical interpretation. Result: he, his heavily pregnant wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pre-pubescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twin siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are expelled from the community and left to fend for themselves farming a grim patch of land near a forest reputed to be haunted by a witch.

The sheer amount of offspring William has fathered is the first indication that he might not be as Godly as he’d like everyone – including his immediate family – to believe. Nor is he above selling a silver cup belonging to Katherine and letting Thomasin take the blame for its disappearance. And he’s pretty quick to backtrack when a stern theological lecture to Caleb ends with the boy in tears, convinced that if he dies young he’ll have never shriven himself of original sin and his soul will be damned. Caleb’s already confused at his elder sister blooming into womanhood and feverish with guilt every time he looks at her. Meanwhile, Mercy and Jonas get up to infantile devilment around the farmstead – Thomasin is chastised as she’s supposed to be watching them – and make up songs about “black Philip”, a demonic alter ego of the family’s goat.

Did I say something earlier about “the house of brotherly love”? Quite the opposite, actually. House of familial antagonism, more like. House of dysfunctional relationships. House of claustrophobically ratcheted tension. Still, Katherine’s just delivered the latest addition to the brood, and the devil’s about to come dancing in.

The catalyst is when Thomasin babysits near the woods. In the split second that her eyes are closed during a game of peekaboo, the baby disappears. William desperately searches. The family experience the first symptoms of collective hysteria. Thomasin becomes persona non grata. Meanwhile, an expressionist vignette details in horrible terms what happened to the infant.

The atmosphere becomes unbearable. William’s fear-of-God piety drives Katherine to madness. Thomasin responds to Mercy and Jonas’s taunts that she’s a witch by playing up to the role and terrifying them. The twins soon exhibit signs of mania. Caleb determines to leave the home, a course of action that sees him lost in the wood and drawn to a strange, seductive woman. When he’s returned home, a few days later, in the middle of an appropriately melodramatic storm, he seems transformed.

Eggers’s script draws on journal entries and parish records of the time, constructing as much of the dialogue as possible from historical sources. Coupled with Craig Lathrop’s determinedly unromantic production design and Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography – which uses mainly natural light and candlelight – the result is an austere and mirthless film, as serious in its intent as anything by Bergman. The family’s dynamic is shown as antagonistic if not outright hateful. In terms of their faith – or rather, of William’s unblinkingly enforced version of faith – the behaviours they display exist at extremes: snivelling, self-effacing piety or holier-than-thou occupation of the moral high ground. There is no middle ground: no room for grace or love.

Enter the Devil, at first because the door of misused religion has been left open for him; finally by explicit invitation.

Eggers takes a slow-burn approach to the material, and plays enough of the early scenes with a degree of ambiguity: ‘The Witch’ could pass as a psychological case study for much of its running time. Even the scene which details the baby’s fate is staged with such elliptical unworldliness that it’s easy to read as fearful projection rather than actuality. Indeed, it’s not till Caleb returns and his story is resolved in a perverse parody of religious ecstasy that Eggers comes down firmly on the side of supernatural elements.

And when he does, the sequence of scenes and images that follow – startling and visceral moments that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling – prove to be the stuff of which great horror films are made. That’s “great” as in genuinely scary, by the way. “Great” as in cerebral; as in moments that make you think even as they freak you on. Moments that are included not for their shock value (though several of them an incredible punch in that department) but for what they mean on a deeper, more primal level.

‘The Witch’ is an astounding film: controlled, atmospheric, perceptively written, incredibly well acted (Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw in particular are outstanding; no-one else puts a foot wrong) and scored to chilling effect by Mark Korven. That it’s Robert Eggers’s first feature is nothing short of miraculous. Whether it’s the Almighty doling out the miracles isn’t something I’d want to put money on.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

'Tis the season to be spooky ...

Greetings from the Wicked Witch of the Blogosphere. I’ve been asked by the depraved little man who runs this festering pustule of a blog to introduce the annual bacchanalia of spooky cinematic fare that is 13 For Halloween.

A stir of the cauldron and a quick casting of the runes tells me that The Agitation of the Mind has been hosting 13 For Halloween since 2010 – that’s 91 offerings so far to the dark and swirling forces that take to the night on All Hallows Eve.

So join us from tomorrow as we simultaneously countdown towards the 31st and push the numbers up towards the triple figures. Some dark delights are lined up for you. Things like this …